The Westcott Apartments were supposed to be a second chance. But after just one month in his new home, run by the Housing Authority of South Bend, James was already looking to move.
In early May, his toilet was backing up, his door wouldn’t open or close properly and he saw mice scurrying through the building. Many of the mailboxes didn’t have working locks, he said, making him worry that his mail wasn’t secure.
James was one of 112 people forced out of the authority’s Rabbi Shulman Apartments, on Western Avenue, because of gas leaks in the six-story building in February.
For the seven months that James lived in Rabbi Shulman, he couldn’t turn on his gas stove because of the leaks.
But if he had the choice to leave his new unit in Westcott, on Alonzo Watson Drive, and return to Rabbi Shulman, he said he’d gladly go back.
“That building (Rabbi Shulman) is better than this one,” said James, who asked that his last name not be used because he feared retaliation. “Why they [close] that one down and leave this, I don’t know.”
The problems at Westcott and Rabbi Shulman are not uncommon.
In fact, all of South Bend’s public housing properties failed their most recent inspections in March 2020. A “property” includes several public housing buildings and hundreds of units.
In prior years, for inspections conducted in 2017 and 2018, 75% of South Bend properties failed their building inspections. That was the worst failure rate in that period — ranging from 2015 to 2018 — among all housing authorities in Indiana with more than one property, according to an analysis of U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development records.
The analysis was conducted for The Tribune by Notre Dame’s Gallivan Program in Journalism, Ethics, and Democracy.
Gary, which has seven more public housing properties than South Bend, was the only other Indiana housing authority with a comparable failure rate, at 55%.
Put another way, although South Bend’s housing authority only manages 5% of Indiana’s public housing properties, the city was home to 20% of the state’s failing properties in HUD’s database.
Hundreds of violations found in South Bend include those classified as “life-threatening” by HUD, such as fire and electrical hazards. In 2020, inspectors found exposed electrical wiring, missing smoke detectors and sprinklers, bed-bug infestations and roaches, among other issues.
In addition, the housing authority is still under the cloud of a federal investigation after a 2019 FBI raid of its offices.
Catherine Lamberg, executive director of the Housing Authority, said she sees little value in comparing her agency to others around the state. But she wasn’t surprised by the poor inspection scores.
“Is it a surprise to you or anyone else that South Bend is a troubled agency with failed developments?” said Lamberg, who was hired in late 2020. “I was brought here…to look at how we address the longstanding issues that face this housing authority … fix those issues and move the agency forward.”
Lamberg said the authority is commissioning an in-depth study of building needs, the first such study in 15 years. The authority also is identifying business practices to help recover from its HUD-designated “troubled” status.
Lamberg also said housing authorities are too unique to compare.
“What I’m not going to dignify is lumping everything into one, disregarding the individual aspects of an agency and trying to answer a question that serves no purpose,” she said.
The Housing Authority owns and runs nine public housing complexes, as well as scattered-site apartments and rental homes. More than 1,900 people live in 808 units across South Bend.
The authority has a $4 million annual budget from HUD, which inspects complexes every year if their score falls below a certain level.
A failing inspection grade means a property is deemed indecent, unsafe or unsanitary, or was found to be in bad repair. Fire hazards, fall hazards, electrical hazards and certain toxins are all examples of “life-threatening” hazards, according to HUD’s criteria.
Inspectors in 2020 projected that if all 808 units in South Bend had been inspected, 1,816 health and safety hazards, or 2.25 per unit, would have been found. Inspectors projected that 497 of these hazards would have been “life threatening.”
The problems are apparent in the halls of the Westcott Apartments, which share a wall with the housing authority’s main office.
In early May, for example, reporters observed vacuum tubing stretched across a first-floor hallway, sucking water out of residents’ apartments after a flooding incident. Exposed pipes stuck out of holes in the halls’ walls. Exposed wires hung out of the ceiling.
During an inspection, HUD examines a building’s exterior, common spaces and systems, and a sampling of units.
In its inspection database, a “property” score represents hundreds of units, and sometimes even dozens of addresses scattered across the city. South Bend’s worst-performing property, Property 2, includes the Westcott Apartments and the now-closed Rabbi Shulman Apartments.
Inspectors deduct points for, among other issues, mold; roach or vermin infestation; exposed electrical wiring; inoperable smoke detectors; tripping hazards; broken bathroom or kitchen appliances; and missing ceiling tiles.
In March 2020, inspectors found exposed electrical wiring and three missing fire-safety sprinklers in the Westcott Apartments. Five smoke detectors in the building were missing or inoperable.
Three separate bed-bug infestations were found in the building, and inspectors observed live roaches in a hallway and in one unit’s kitchen. In another unit, inspectors noticed a dead roach in a resident’s salt shaker.
Live roaches were also crawling through two units that inspectors visited in Rabbi Shulman. Similar to Westcott, Rabbi Shulman had missing fire sprinklers. Inspectors also found missing electrical covers and evidence of water leaks or corrosion in the building’s electrical system.
In at least one building among every property, inspectors found a growth of mold greater than one square foot in size. In at least two units in every property, inspectors saw roaches, either dead or alive. In two properties, they saw evidence of mice infestation.
This past week, a Westcott Apartment resident, Henry Renolds, showed The Tribune several problems in his second-floor unit: water damage visible on the floor and brown dots visible from leaks in the ceiling; a broken toilet and air conditioning unit; extensive rust in the shower; a non-working stove.
The most serious issue for Renolds, however, was the mold around the stove and around the doorway, which he says exacerbates his asthma and chronic pulmonary disease.
Renolds, 64, has lived in the unit for more than three years. He said he had complained many times but repairs, if they occurred, were only quick, short-term fixes.
“Unless you keep hounding them,” he said, “and they won’t listen to me.”
After a particularly serious episode of asthma recently, Renolds’ daughter, Zoe Randle, visited the unit and made another complaint to the property manager. That complaint resulted in maintenance cleaning up water outside the apartment last week, she said, with Housing Authority management later agreeing to move Renolds into another property.
Deterioration over the years
Rodney Gadson remembers when his grandfather lived in the Rabbi Shulman Apartments.
“It was nice,” Gadson said. “That was back in the ‘80s.”
As president of the South Bend Tenant Association, Gadson now advocates for low-income tenants, many of whom live in South Bend’s public housing properties.
In the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, public housing was a popular option for lower- to middle-income Americans.
But those properties weren’t built to last, according to Robert Collinson, an assistant professor of economics at the University of Notre Dame who researches housing policy. Developers, he said, maximized profit margins with low-quality construction and by placing the buildings in poor and segregated neighborhoods.
Nationally, as properties have decayed, public housing has become a “housing of last resort for very vulnerable households,” Collinson said.
And since the 1980s, he added, policymakers have favored privatized, market-based solutions, such as Section-8 housing choice vouchers.
Despite the issues, Collinson believes public housing still serves a critical function.
“It is this important backstop for a lot of very vulnerable households, to ensure that they don’t fall into homelessness, or that they aren’t circling through shelters,” he said.
But many remaining public housing properties, including those in South Bend, are now on the brink.
“The funding that we get over the years from HUD is inadequate — and perhaps has not been spent effectively as it could or as efficiently as it could be — to keep up these 40- and 50-year-old buildings,” said Judd McNally, a Housing Authority board member.
South Bend Mayor James Mueller agreed, but also pointed to management failures.
“There’s really been decades of neglect and mismanagement of our housing authority,” Mueller said. “When we did make a lot of these investments back about 50 years ago, you can’t let something go on autopilot or erode funding sources for a long time and not expect to have a backlog of maintenance and other issues.”
In October 2018 — six months before declaring his presidential candidacy — then-Mayor Pete Buttigieg arrived at a Housing Authority board meeting, unannounced. He aired a list of grievances.
The housing authority’s problems, Buttigieg told the board, had “gotten to the level that has prompted me to decide that working to support and improve the housing authority will be in the top tier of priorities for my administration for as long as I’m mayor.”
But it’s not entirely clear who’s responsible for the failures. The oversight structure is “arcane,” according to Collinson.
Public housing authorities are subsidized and managed by the federal government, but local governments have some oversight. In South Bend, the mayor appoints the housing authority’s board of six commissioners, who oversee the agency’s “strategic direction,” according to McNally.
The board appoints an executive director, who is responsible for day-to-day operations.
McNally, whom Buttigieg appointed to the board in 2019, said he has struggled to hold the agency accountable. At his first board meeting, McNally realized the agency wasn’t even producing financial statements.
“When you’re not involved in the day-to-day, you’re putting a lot of trust in individuals to do the right thing,” McNally said.
In 2015, after a federal audit found that the housing authority had improperly awarded contracts and misspent money, Buttigieg replaced all six members of the board.
Then, in July 2019, the FBI raided the housing authority’s office and a home the agency owned. Federal authorities have yet to announce any criminal charges. That September, the housing authority briefly suspended then-Executive Director Tonya Robinson and later chose not to renew her contract.
In December 2020, about a year and a half later, the board hired Lamberg. Her 32-year career includes stints as acting director of HUD’s Richmond, Va., office, director of HUD’s Troubled Agency Recovery Center in Memphis, and most recently, as public housing director in the Indianapolis field office.
Mueller and McNally say Lamberg is a promising candidate to right the ship.
“She’s just got incredible experience,” McNally said. “She knows what she’s doing, and I think in the 120 days she’s been here, we’ve moved lightyears ahead of where we were. The challenge is we still have a long way to go.”
Under Lamberg’s direction, McNally noted, the agency has begun producing financial statements again — a move that McNally hopes will allow for more transparency and accountability.
Lamberg said once the authority decides what to do with its dilapidated properties, such as Rabbi Shulman and Westcott, it will look to both HUD and the city for money to help.
The authority in February moved Rabbi Shulman tenants out after the gas leaks were found and has paid their costs to stay in hotels while helping them find other rental housing.
Earlier this month, the city brought Notre Dame architecture students to a meeting with displaced Rabbi Shulman tenants, and the students produced drawings of how the building could be redesigned.
“It’s the housing of the city and we’re housing your citizens, absolutely,” Lamberg said when asked if the city should contribute funding for Rabbi Shulman. “There’s been an outpouring of support, and I anticipate it will continue.”
Mueller said the city, which has yet to determine how to spend $63 million in federal money from this year’s American Rescue Plan Act, “want(s) to be a partner and are open to helping in some way.”
“Our team is looking at various options, not just for Rabbi Shulman but other units that the housing authority oversees,” Mueller said. “Having some sort of city participation in moving some of these units forward is on the table, for sure.”
Lamberg said the board has yet to decide whether to demolish and rebuild Rabbi Shulman or renovate it, a decision she would like made by year’s end. But she said there’s consensus that the authority should maintain housing at the site.
“We have a tremendous opportunity in the original footprint where Rabbi Shulman sits, and it is the interest of the board to maintain a development in that location as affordable housing,” Lamberg said.
The board expects to soon hire Mishawaka-based Forum Architects to assess the building’s needs. Based on her own “preliminary assessment,” renovation of the building would cost about $70,000 per unit.
At 127 units, that would amount to nearly $9 million, which could approach the cost to demolish and build new, Lamberg said.
Lamberg said the boarded-up Rabbi Shulman is a priority for now over the occupied Westcott Apartments, though she acknowledged that Wescott has serious problems that need to be addressed.
She said HUD won’t score housing authorities on inspections this year because of the pandemic, but she expects more failing scores in the future.
“It is not possible at the next inspection that we will pass, whether we have a big infusion of federal dollars or not,” Lamberg said, adding that HUD is transitioning to a more stringent inspection system. “The housing is what it is and it’s in bad shape, and it’s been in bad shape for a very long time. But you know what I can do, is I can look forward to see how it got there, not to make those same mistakes again, come up with a plan to resolve the issues and move the agency forward.”
While Gadson credits Lamberg with making some headway, he said South Bend public housing tenants still live in a state of “fear and frustration.”
“And actually, they’re being robbed,” Gadson said. “They’re being robbed of their rights and some of their dignity.”